Though Khan has not been charged with a crime, the fallout polarized the Muslim community. In cyberspace specifically, there was a barrage of mudslinging against female critics to coerce them into silence. The women involved in the scandal, who claimed to be threatened with lawsuits if they spoke up, were also maligned. As Shaheen Pasha wrote in The Dallas Morning News, “Some Muslims considered them vengeful scorned women and questioned their religious purity for even engaging in such conversations with Khan.”
This reaction reveals why talking about sexual abuse openly and honestly within the Muslim community can be fraught with difficulty. The Koran and Prophetic traditions are replete with “references to sex and sexuality which are celebratory and what we might today call ‘sex positive,’” said Zareena Grewal, a professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale University. But, she added, they “have typically been interpreted by Muslims in ways that privilege men and patriarchy.” While discussions of consensual sex in the context of marriage are acceptable, sexual assault and abuse of power fall outside these boundaries.
The response to a 2015 revelation likewise echoed this sad truth. That year, reports unexpectedly surfaced of sexual misconduct within Chicago’s South Asian Muslim community. Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, an imam and founder of a boarding school known as the Institute of Islamic Education, was accused in a lawsuit by multiple women of decades of sexual assault and child sex abuse. When he pled guilty to two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in 2016, several civil suits still awaited him.
Though Saleem’s transgressions made headlines and were appropriately brought before the law, the conversations they sparked faded by 2017. Few tangible efforts resulted within Muslim communities to identify, investigate, and prevent such abuses in the future. Reminiscent of a new investigative report by The Associated Press that illuminated the rampant sexual abuse of children by clerics in Pakistan’s madrasas, here was a vivid example of how depraved religious figures potentially lurk inside the walls of mosques and other Muslim spaces—and yet it was brushed under the rug until the #MeToo moment caused a stir that made it impossible to ignore.
Complicating all this is a danger that exists in any religion: the potential for cult-like personality worship. The spiritual search for God is suffused with great emotion, and the reverence for, and reliance on, the religious figures involved often affords them great power and influence. These preachers and scholars are seen as the actual path to discovering God, when they are only really meant to shine a light on the path, which must be traversed by each individual independently.
In Islam’s nascent stages, a budding Muslim community became distraught after Muhammad’s death. Many wondered how Islam would endure in his absence. A belief began to sprout that the Prophet had been taken to heaven and would return shortly. Cognizant of this exaggerated focus on the individual, Abu Bakr, a close companion of Muhammad who became the first Caliph, said, “O men, if anyone worships Muhammad, Muhammad is dead; if anyone worships God, God is alive, immortal!”